3 ALCOHOLIC Fringe plays
Alcohol is a staple of the Fringe festival, whether it’s the on-stage subject matter, or the libations we enjoy before, after and – at some very civilized venues – during.
At two of the three venues hosting the following triptych of shows you can enjoy a beverage while watching – which may sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable given some of the weightier aspects of drinking depicted on stage.
By TMI Productions, Toronto, Venue 13 (Old Strathcona Library)
Intellectual yet frequently hilarious, Drunk Girl delves into the issue of women and drinking. Performer Thea Fitz-James tackles this subject with the same well-researched yet highly entertaining manner that she used in her excellent 2015 show, Naked Ladies.
This time the focus is more on personal storytelling, and Fitz-James is great at it. She begins in high school, looking through her yearbook and regaling us with stories from her teenage years in rural Quebec, where the main activity for the town’s local teenagers was drinking. From there we go to college, where drinking becomes a feminist act.
At times the show almost becomes a lecture (but a really good one), as Fitz-James gets into the nitty-gritty of the politics of women and booze. In between these academic discussions, we experience the subject first hand as she leads the audience, unwittingly, into the disgusting pro-rape chant sung by students at the University of British Columbia in 2013. Then we see her embody the person that chant was about: a young woman falling-down drunk at a party. The emotional and intellectual whiplash is amazing.
Fitz-James is a smart, enchanting performer who knows how to navigate the line between levity and gravity. She pushes the audience into uncomfortable territory just enough to make us really confront the subject, then backs off and gives us a laugh. And while she readily admits that shows like this can’t really give you a neat little ending, there’s nothing wrong with how this one closed off: with a cathartic moment that also makes good (mostly) on her yearbook prediction.
4 out of 5
By Defiance Theatre, Edmonton, Venue 21, El Cortez
A middle-aged barfly and a sassy bartender is the setup of Louise Casemore’s new script, Gemini, which feels admittedly familiar. But she avoids falling completely into hackneyed territory by virtue of a quietly complex story that shows us the evolution of their relationship in an honest, unadorned way.
Vern Thiessen (playwright and Workshop West artistic director) plays the male half of this two-hander: a software consultant and poet who spends his afternoons drinking whisky and doing crossword puzzles in an empty bar. Opposite him is Louise Casemore in the role of Julie, a cynical yet caring redhead who tends bar. It’s thus very fitting that the audience is packed in tight rows facing an actual bar, in the dungeon-like basement in El Cortez.
There’s an immediate sense of inevitability to the proceedings, the firm knowledge that this scene has played out time and again in bars across space and time. You know things aren’t going to end well; they can’t. They never do.
The strength of Gemini is the quiet way that it builds up and then exposes all the subtle pretenses we’ve built up around drinking: the way we need to treat alcohol so lightly, as if every drink is the first and a celebration, even when it’s actually the fifth and a coping mechanism. The careful way that bartenders overlook the undercurrent of desperation and loneliness in their patrons, and the way that the relationship between the two is easily fraught by the legal responsibility the former has for the latter.
Where this show may alienate some audience members is its poetic treatment of the situation. Our main character is a poet, sure, but those of us who’ve experienced the reality of alcoholism may not be so willing to accept that poetry at face value.
3 out of 5
One Too Many
By Thunder Tangent, Edmonton, Venue 22 (Garneau Theatre)
If you’re looking for a show that will give you a good story to tell at parties but not much else, this is the one for you. It’s not so much a theatre show as a set of performance art pieces, revolving around the two performers (Evan Harvey and Calla Wright) doing shots of actual vodka throughout the show. At the start, they have an audience member take a whiff to verify the authenticity of their very large bottle of Alberta Pure. She did at least six shots and he did upwards of eight during the show – it’s hard to keep track.
Things begin very awkwardly, with the duo making stilted banter as they set up pyramids of solo cups and play a round of Pictionary. It was made all the more awkward in the show I attended, as there were precisely 13 audience members (including me) in the suddenly cavernous-seeming Garneau Theatre. Wright herself commented that the space was too big, but such is Fringe.
Highlights, if you can call them that, include each of them reciting a spoken word piece while balancing seven cups of vodka on his limbs (Harvey) or stuffing vodka-soaked cotton balls in her mouth (Wright). The tone, which begins lighthearted, shifts abruptly as they’re suddenly whipping eggs around and then stripping naked and showering in a stream of Bud Light.
You can see what they’re trying to get at with this show: how drinking is all fun and games at first but then can become something much darker. But the gratuitous spectacle on display becomes the show’s sole focus and detracts from any meaningful impact it could have.
1 out of 5